Best Defense

An old salt picks his 4 favorite American admirals—and explains why (III): Fiske

I could talk endlessly about Bradley A. Fiske.



Best Defense is on summer hiatus. During this restful spell we offer re-runs from the past 12 months. This item originally ran on April 11.

By Capt. Wayne P. Hughes Jr. (Ret.)
Best Defense guest columnist

I could talk endlessly about Bradley A. Fiske. He was the closest officer I know to a navy “Renaissance Man.” Briefly, here is his career that spanned everything except combat command, which doubtless he would have relished.

In the late 19th Century the U.S. Navy trailed the leading navies of the world in the transitions from sail to steam, wood to steel, and smoothbores to rifled artillery. Fiske lived through the transformation that began in 1880 and was a leader in it.

Young Lieutenant Fiske saw a critical need for electricity in the new mechanized navy. At age 28 in 1882, he applied for a six-month leave of absence to study the potential of electricity for warships. There was no postgraduate school for science or technology then, so he asked to go to the GE plant in Schenectady, New York. He had acquired a service reputation early, so when the application reached the Bureau of Navigation it came to the desk of his former executive officer, Captain Bowman McCalla. As assistant chief of the Bureau, McCalla replied, “Six months is not enough,” and ordered Fiske to study at GE for a year.

The Navy never got a greater payback from graduate education than that investment. During that year Fiske published his first technical article, sold his first patent, and was well into his first textbook on the theory and practice of electricity, which would go through ten printings over 22 years.

I don’t have time to mention all the things Fiske introduced into the Navy but you can find them in the introduction to his capstone book, The Navy as A Fighting Machine. Just for starters, Fiske designed the electrical drive to rotate warship gun turrets and the gears to move the guns in elevation fast enough to achieve continuous-aim fire being espoused then by William S. Sims. He also designed the ammunition hoists that made big guns practical. In 1912, as a rear admiral at sea, Fiske took his first seaplane ride and became an enthusiast for air power. Anticipating the torpedo bomber, he designed and patented an aerial torpedo before aircraft power plants were strong enough to lift the torpedo in the air.

Fiske went on to become an innovative strategist and tactician. He was plucked to come to Naval War College when Luce was the president and Mahan was on writing the virtues of sea power. Fiske became one of the upstart reformers who believed too much power over constructing and operating the fleet resided in the secretary of the Navy.

His opening salvo was his Naval Institute Prize Essay of 1905. Though titled “American Naval Policy,” this extraordinary 80-page work covered policy, strategy, operations, and tactics. Fiske affirmed his belief that the design and construction of warships must be guided by the officers who would fight them and knew the tactics their ships must use to win a battle. In the article and appearing for the first time anywhere was the equivalent of the now-famous Lanchester’s Square Law. Fiske showed its applicability to big-gun navy combat a full decade before British automotive engineer Frederick W. Lanchester deduced the equations.

In 1913 Fiske was assigned as principle aide to Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, now most remembered for removing spirits from our warships. He was forceful and opinionated, but was a journalist by trade, and quite ignorant of the operating navy at a time when war clouds were gathering over Europe. Sims was alarmed. He said someone else would have to fight for reform “because Bradley Fiske is constitutionally opposed to conflict of any kind.”

Sims was right about Fiske’s temperament, but wrong about Fiske’s determination, for Fiske was not above a Machiavellian stroke. In January 1915, without Daniels’s knowledge Rear Admiral Fiske and a few assistants met in the dead of night with Congressman Richmond P. Hobson, the man who as a Navy lieutenant won the Medal of Honor in 1898 after he almost succeeded in blocking Santiago harbor by blowing up the collier Merrimac in its narrow entrance. From that meeting came the legislation establishing the office of chief of naval operations that from 1920 to 1960 had the power and influence we remember of the office typified by Admirals Ernest J. King and Arleigh Burke. As I wrote elsewhere, “Creation of the post and its staff marked the turning point that ensured the uniformed influence championed by Luce, Fiske, Sims, David W. Taylor, William F. Fullam, and other leaders who knew it to be essential for professional planning and execution.”

Bradley Fiske was an officer who served first in the old Navy but who did more than any other single officer to equip the new Navy with over 20 inventions that went into the steel-hulled, big-gunned, steam-propelled warships. While serving at sea before World War I, he championed the future of navy aviation. As a senior officer he fought and won battles in Washington with skill, acumen, subterfuge, and honor. He wrote six books and published 62 substantial essays. And, oh yes: Fiske served as President of the Naval Institute longer than anyone else, from 1911 to 1923.

Capt. Wayne P. Hughes Jr. (Ret.), during his 30 years of active duty, held three commands in the surface Navy. He also was an operations analyst afloat and ashore. He is the author of the naval classic Fleet Tactics. Since retiring some 34 years ago, he has been a teacher and administrator at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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